Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Dick Toll

Lessons:

SERMON JANUARY 17, 2021, JOHN: CHAPTER 1, VERSUS 43-51, HONORING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR

Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met.  I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ.   I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him.  I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas.  I was 16 years old.  I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights.  My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country.  Especially around issues of school segregation.  The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional.  The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.

I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race.  It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country.  In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”.  At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”.  I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos.  He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court.  Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings.  I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white.  A black person had no choice to be born black.  We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination?  A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.

I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957.  Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools.  I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black.  My ignorance was such that I did not know that.  The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school.  My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist.  I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks.  I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me.  We respected our different views and I have always respected my father.  He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts.  Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.

I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns.  He became a hero.  We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends.  We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games.  The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there.  We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant.  You go eat in the kitchen.”  I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen.  I followed him and ate with him.  I felt as though I had been punched in the gut.  It was not right.  So I grew up a little that night and that year.

Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland.  I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial.  Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination.  I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial.  Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968.  The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city.  As we know this conversation continues to this day.

I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway.  I had been ordained a short time.  On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue.  As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?”  I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me.  You can realize my surprise and wondering  what in the world was going on.  She came up to me and again called me by name.  She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.”  She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize.  We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland.  I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?”  She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.

I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism.  We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life.  Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery.  We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives.  And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.

I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society.  It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance.  It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country.  It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing.  But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.

Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against.  I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland.  The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way.  It worked and is working.

I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place.  And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on.  My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.

We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”.  One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song.  The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music.  He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth.  He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn.  It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968.  The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.

Second Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.

A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.

And then the film began.

Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.

It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:

Boom – reversal!

Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.

My classmates and I laughed hard.

I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.

When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.

A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.

In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.

Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.

And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.

Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.

Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.

And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:

With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back

The weeping is reversed.

To those who are exiled, God says:

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth

The exile is reversed.

And one more:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord

The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.

Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.

What God does it to transform them.

Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.

If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.

We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.

How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.

And so as it ends, we say, Please.

Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.

Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.

The First Sunday of Advent by the Reverend Martin Elfert

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

In the beginning was the apocalypse.

One of the weirdest things in church (and there are a lot of weird things to choose from in church) is that the church year always begins with apocalypse. The long season that we call ordinary time comes to an end, a new church year and the season that we call Advent begins, we start reading a new Gospel (sometimes Luke; sometimes Matthew; this year, Mark), and, regardless of which Gospel we’re in, we hear Jesus talk about apocalypse.

Maybe because of action movies and the Left Behind books, a lot of us have this picture of apocalypse as stuff blowing up. And to some extent that is Biblical – Jesus does talk about radical things happening around us, the sun being darkened, the stars falling from heaven. But to a larger extent apocalypse as explosion and folks being sucked into the sky is a latter invention, kind of like our understanding of hell is less about the Bible and way more about Dante.

The word apocalypse – at least as we find it in the Bible – actually doesn’t mean “everything blows up.” It means revelation or uncovering. So, the final chapter of the collection of books that we call the Bible is entitled The Apocalypse of John or The Revelation of John. We could totally legitimately translate it as The Unveiling of John. When a magician does one of those tricks in which they whip a sheet off of something and that something is changed, instead of

Ta-Da!

they could say

Apocalypse!

Now, when something is unveiled sometimes it is like an explosion, sometimes you really do say, Oh no! I’m a fan of horror films, and I know that the unveiling is often the moment when you jump a mile out of your seat. But unveiling is sometimes also the moment when you say:

Aha!

Here is the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. Wilder says:

This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it.

That is apocalypse. That is revelation. That is unveiling. Wilder is talking specifically about apocalypse via art, but we would not have to change his sentence at all to make it apply to service, to learning, to prayer, to connective laughter, to grief, to ecstasy, the list goes on.

In the presence of this experience, this encounter, something is unveiled. I know that I know. Apocalypse. Ta Da! Aha!

Oh no!

That Oh no reminds us that apocalypse is not always comfortable or easy. This knowing – this knowing that you know – sometimes it really is like the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky. The wonderful contemporary theologian David Dark makes the case that we are living in an apocalypse moment in America right now. For a lot of white folks, for instance, we had this vague idea that racism in America was a problem, that Black folks were not imagining things when they told us that were treated utterly differently by the police and by doctors and by banks. But via the Black Lives Matter protests of this year, many white folks were motivated to do work like the Sacred Ground program that Grace is doing right now. And now that we know that we know – or at least, we are beginning to do.

Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.

Dark gives another example. He talks about when the pandemic kicked in and folks who work at grocery stores got declared essential workers, and he learned that lots of people who stock lots of shelves don’t get sick leave. I am reminded of my own experience, a few years ago, when we hosted a speaker as part of the movement to raise the minimum wage in Oregon to fifteen dollars an hour. You may remember the woman who came to speak here at Grace. She was a Southwest Airlines employee. And prior to that moment, if you’d asked me to describe an airline worker, I would have said: probably unionised, probably pretty good benefits, probably a retirement plan.

The person who came to speak here was routinely choosing between buying groceries and getting health care.

Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.

One of the things that makes apocalypse hard is that, once the unveiling happens, it’s hard to go back to how you were before. You can try. Even after you learn about how hard it is to get access to mental health and addiction services, about how domestic violence puts a crack in your life that you can never entirely glue back together, you can keep on telling stories about how the people sleeping on the street just need to pull harder on their bootstraps. But after the apocalypse, those stories kind of feel like lies. They feel like lies that you are telling to yourself and telling to Jesus.

And in this respect, the idea that apocalypse is the end of the world suddenly isn’t wrong. When you see this stuff, the world as it used to be is unavailable to you anymore. This is like when you first realise that your parents are fallible, this is like when Adam and Eve bite into that fruit. You can’t go back to how things were.

I have always known without being fully aware. Know I know that I know.

And while that is hard news it is also good news. Slavery comes to an end when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they can no longer tell self-soothing lies about how it is a benign or kindly institution. Women get the vote when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they are living with institutionalised misogyny. The Berlin Wall falls when there is an apocalypse and a whole lot of people know when they always knew, that the wall wasn’t keeping the invading hordes out but was keeping everyone inside from being free.

There were ways in which all of these apocalypses felt like Oh no moments in their time. Historians remind us that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not all that popular in the 1960s: he was unveiling stuff that people didn’t want to see. But Dr. King’s work and these other apocalypses: they look a little bit like the coming of the Kingdom now.

What apocalypses do we need today? What do we need unveiled? What do we need to see in a way that, once seen, we cannot go back? Maybe we need to see that celebrating as the Dow hits 30,000 while people in this country go hungry is an obscenity. Maybe we need to see that the accumulation of stuff as the world gets hotter and burns is an act of desecration, an act of vandalism against God’s creation. Maybe we need to see that our worship of guns means that we have our fingers crossed when we worship Jesus?

What else?

None of these apocalypses are easy. They, all of them, feel a bit like the sun going dark and the stars falling. But if Jesus is with us – and Jesus is with us – then the dark sun never gets to be the last word, Oh no never gets to be the last word. With God’s help, Oh no will become Ah ha which will become Ta Da!

Jesus is unveiling something new.

I started by saying, In the beginning was the apocalypse. But maybe that’s backwards. Maybe what is really true is this:

There is apocalypse. And then. Then things begin.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.[1]

In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.

Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.

The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.

The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.

The third senior manager was a total loser.

One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)

Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:

Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.

Here’s your one billion dollars.

And the CEO replied:

You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!

Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.

And they did so.

And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.

And they did so. And as the third manager’s screams receded and then abruptly ended, the CEO looked at senior manager one and senior manager two and he said:

Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.

The Word of the Lord.

What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?

No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.

While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.

Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.

Here are a few clues.

First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.

Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.

Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.

In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.

The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.

Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.

Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.


[1] This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.

All Saints Sunday by The Rev. Dick Toll

Lessons:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints’ Day on the calendar.  You have just listened to the Beatitudes which represents the teaching of Jesus as he spoke to the hearts of people…people that surrounded him on the Mount of Beatitudes at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

I have visited this site in the Holy Land many times.  It is always awe inspiring to look out on the Sea of Galilee and hear once again the words of Jesus.  In my visits the most memorable was when I got up early at a hostel that I was staying at across the road from the Mt of Beatitudes.  I arrived as the sun was coming up.  And I was the only person there.  Usually I have experienced hundreds of people with tourist groups.  I found myself in a deep meditation while walking and meditated upon on the words of Jesus that have been a hallmark of the Gospel message for centuries.  Teachings to live by…..Blessed are you!  Teachings that people found meaningful to the point that history defines people who have followed in the foot steps of Jesus to be called “Saints” because of their exemplary lives…people who are good, kind, honest, patient in accepting Jesus into their lives.

You have offered names of those to be honored this day and we will lift them up in prayer.

I believe that today is a day that we remind ourselves where we come from.  In the hustle and bustle of modern day life we often do not explore history in the lives of those who have given of themselves in their own times and generation.  These persons who are known and unknown who are the saints within history.  We need to capture these moments of the past that have provided some very special people who continue to speak to us today.  My thoughts turn to Francis of Assisi who is a favorite saint.

But, we may forget he was a spoiled rich kid who grew up and went off to the crusades in the 13th Century.  He was so distressed by the violence during his time in the crusades his effectiveness was realized when the Muslim Sultan of Egypt allowed his order of Franciscans to become the custodians of the Holy Land in 1217.

Well after his death, his supporters claimed the Holy Sites in the Holy Land and even until today make them available for pilgrims to visit.  Franciscans remain on the front line in trying to keep Christians in the Holy Land.  In the 1940’s, Christians were 18% of the population.  Today, it is less than 1% and it continues to shrink.

I have stayed at their pilgrimage site at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and celebrated communion at a chapel that goes back to the Roman Empire.  The followers of Francis still reflect the prayer of Saint Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace.”  We are recipients of this wonderful human being and his relationship with the person of Jesus in his life.

When we look back into the lives of these individuals who have defined the meaning of Jesus Christ in their day and time, it helps us to find our way through the challenges of our own day.  We do not spend enough time reflecting where we come from out of history and those people who in their own time confronted good and evil .  Their choices are still resounding in our lives.

I have found over the years that moments stand out for me.  What do I mean by that?  And ahh hah moment,  a sermon that I remember, a book that I read that clarifies for me an issue, a conversation that comes back to me.

When I was in seminary, I was struggling with my background of being raised in a culture in Texas that was quite literal and fundamental in its Christianity.  I was caught up with issues of creation, evolution, science, and religion.  Who were the saints I was suppose to listen to?  What did they have to offer me?

One day a professor at the seminary was sharing the thoughts of Saint Augustine of Hppo….a 4th century bishop who was converted to Christianity in his early 30s.  He is well documented in his writings and opened many doors to the people of his time.  The professor pointed out his views of Creation.  What we experience in the discovery and our learning of Creation and it’s mystery of  what God has created and is ours to discover and relate to.  We are given gifts to explore the meaning of Creation which is already there and is up to us to find it’s meaning.  Scientists have always been a part of All Saints throughout history.

I have often been put off by the way science and religion have conflicted over the past few centuries.  Much of the religious argument dismisses science.  It gives a bad name for Christianity.  When I was six years old, my appendix burst.  My six year old life was in danger.  I can still remember the pain of lying on the couch and screaming.  My Father called the doctor who came by the house and sent me to the hospital.  It was 1945 and penicillin was a new drug that saved my life.  I received shots every four hours, night and day.  Science and life.

I had open heart surgery in May with two values replaced.  I put my trust in God, prayer, and my doctors and I thank God for the skill of those who have helped me through this period and the prayers of this parish.  I do not remember a lot of what happened before and after surgery but one memory is very real.  I was being wheeled into the operating room and I was semi-conscious as the surgery door opened.  I thought to myself…I should say a prayer…so I tried to mumble through The Lord’s Prayer.  As the doors opened to surgery, I got to the end of the prayer and instead of saying “Amen”, I said “Ut-Oh”.   I woke up ten hours later in ICU looking at my wife, Elaine.

Again, God has given us Creation to live in, to explore, to choose our path of learning, to be All Saints.

I want to make a point today with our history as the Episcopal Church and All Saints.  I believe it is true that the Book of Common Prayer has been second only to the Bible as the book that is most read by people.  The Book of Common Prayer came into use during the reformation in the mid 1500’s.   It was in English.  Now it is in many languages throughout the world.  Much of the Reformation issue was in offering the use of the Bible and worship in the language of the people.  Individuals were burned at the stake because of this issue of language.  The Bible and Prayer Book were given to us by many Saints throughout history.  Most of them we have no idea who they were.  I have here a Bible and Prayer Book from 1578.  It is in English and is 30 years before the King James Bible.  It is known as the “Breeches Bible” because in Genesis when Adam and Eve saw they were naked they put on their breeches.  How English can you get?

The Prayer Book that is part of this book had only been in usages for about 30 years.  It was written by people, some known and many unknown who were the saints of history.  Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1540’s and 50’s was the chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer. The Catholic Queen Mary of England at that time refused to accept his recantations of not accepting the Pope.  I stood on the spot where he was martyred in Oxford, England in 1556.   Some of the prayers in our Prayer Book can be traced to the early 4th, 5th and 6th centuries of the Church.

The All Saints Collect for today is the same Collect in this Prayer Book of 1578.  I wonder who was holding this Prayer Book and Bible as the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1580? 

Let me encourage you to read through the Book of Common Prayer as you live through this pandemic and discover for yourself all the Saints, known and unknown, who gave us this book.

We honor ourselves on All Saints Day.  Remember who we are as individuals.  Each person within creation…you and me…we are unique to creation.  There has never been and never will be anyone like me or you.  We are unique.  Each of us.  Our gifts, our history, our experiences, our relationships, our decisions, our faults, and on and on.  There has never been another person in the world like who we are and never will be because each of us is unique.  I have a mantra I try to pray as I go through life.  It helps to center me and to keep me focused, “God I am yours you have created me for yourself and for your purposes alone have I been created.”

It is within this perspective that we need to realize that we make a difference in the way Creation moves forward.  It may be our special gifts, our relationships, our intellect,…it may be any number of things, but we make a difference.  It may be our vote.  I am often moved by the astronauts in space that have taken pictures of our planet and how small we are amidst the vastness of the universe.  But like a grain of sand on the beach, we are part of a total that God had created.  We are to nurture the saint within us and those who offer their sainthood to us… past and present.

Finally.

One of the modern day people we honor in our own history is Mother Theresa from Calcutta in India.  She is so well known as to her ministry with the poor, the sick, and the dying.  What a unique and wonderful human being she was.  A quote from her is well worth remembering on All Saints Day.

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.

This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.

To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.

This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.

But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.

And he asks them:

Whose head is this?

Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:

Whose image is this?

That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:

God made them, male and female, in God’s image.

It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.

Whose image is this?

And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.

Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.

And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:

That is the emperor’s image.

And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.

Then,

he says to the authorities,

I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.

The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?

Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.

As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:

Whose image is this?

And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:

Whose image is this?

And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer.  Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:

Whose image is this?

And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:

Whose image is this?

How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.

This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.

The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.

The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.

Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.

And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.

Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!

Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We are in the middle of a run of stories by Jesus. The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year, is taking us Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells us one parable or one folk tale after another.

On September 13th (and I’m identifying each of Jesus’ stories by the titles that they are traditionally given) we heard the story called The Unforgiving Servant. On the 20th followed The Generous Vineyard Owner. September 27th gave us the tale of The Two Sons. Today we hear about The Wicked Tenants. And next week we’ll hear the story of The King’s Son’s Wedding.

These run of stories feature themes such as power, duty, obedience and disobedience, reversal of expectation, violence or even revenge. Maybe most of all, they feature the themes of forgiveness, of love, of new life.

And four of the five of stories begin in a way that gets totally lost in almost every English translation. In the original Greek, four of the five begin with a double identification of the first character whom we meet. (I’m drawing here, and throughout this sermon, on the wonderful scholarship of Paul Nuechterlein and Andrew Marr.)

The Unforgiving Servant tells us of a man, a king.

The Generous Vineyard Owner speaks of a man, a housemaster (or a landowner).

The Wicked Tenants, today, is the same: There was a man, a housemaster.

And next week, in The King’s Son’s Wedding, we’ll hear of a man, a king.

Do these double identifiers mean anything? Possibly not. Clearly most translators think that they don’t, as witnessed by their choice to collapse the double identifiers into a single one so that today, for instance, we simply here there was a landowner. And the translators may well be right, this may just be a manner of talking in Greek and, before that, in the Aramaic that Jesus and his friends spoke. Certainly, English is full of double phrases that add little or no meaning: An added bonus is the same thing as a bonus; a free gift is the same thing as a gift; twelve midnight, it turns out, is midnight.

But I wonder. There is so little superfluous information in scripture. A modern book will tell you how tall someone is and what they are wearing and what the weather is like because these things help you to envision the scene. Scripture generally doesn’t do that. If scripture tells you about these things it’s because the story won’t make sense without them: we hear about height when Zacchaeus meets Jesus because otherwise we won’t understand why Zacchaeus is climbing the tree; we hear about clothing in the story of Joseph because otherwise we won’t get the fullness of his brothers’ jealousy; we hear about weather in the calming of the storm because without it we won’t understand the danger that the disciples face.

There was a man, a landowner.

Why does Jesus give us this double identification?

Here’s a guess.

There is a long history or habit of reading the stories of Jesus as though they were straight-up allegories. This habit might be particularly intense in the time in which we now live. This way of looking at scripture is to understand it as something like a puzzle which it’s our job to decode. In the case of a parable, it’s our job to figure out which characters represent which people. Which characters are the stand ins for the Roman occupiers? Who are the stand ins for the religious authorities? Who is the stand in for God?

And to be clear, this reading isn’t wrong. I read the story of The Unforgiving Servant exactly this way a few weeks ago. But what it isn’t and mustn’t be is the only way of reading Jesus’ stories, the final way of reading Jesus’ stories. To do so to reduce them to a riddle with which, once solved, you need no longer wrestle. I have that parable figured out: check! No! The parables have a surplus of meanings. If we approach them with curiosity, they will always be new to us.

I want to suggest that the most common allegorical reading of the series of tales that we have been hearing is to cast the person with power in the stories – the king, the landowner, the housemaster – as God.

What if Jesus is cautioning us against that through his double identification?

There was a man, a landowner.

In other words, Jesus says, there was a landowner, and that landowner was a human being. Not God!

Let’s listen to the parable again.

Once upon a time there was a landowner. A landowner who, in case you were wondering, was a human being. This landowner made a vineyard. And boy, it was nice. There was a tasting room and everything. But business took the landowner to another country. And so he leased the vineyard to some tenants.

The tenants did not turn out to be awesome.

They didn’t pay their rent. And when the landowner sent his employees to collect, the tenants beat and killed the employees. The landowner sent more employees. And the tenants did the same thing. And so the landowner said: I know! I’ll send my son. They will be sure to respect my son. And so the landowner sent his only child.

But the tenants murdered him too.

And Jesus as he often does, ends the parable with a question. A question for everyone listening, a question you and me:

What will the landowner do to those tenants?

And his audience answers:

The landowner will come with an army and put the tenants to the worst death you can imagine.

Which is such a reasonable answer. The landowner gave these guys chance after chance. One envoy. A second envoy. His own son. Three strikes and you’re out. Violence is exactly what a reasonable person would reach for in a situation like this one.

And if God is the landowner, then we have just learned something about God. God is generous, maybe even generous to a fault – sending his son might have been a little reckless. But in the end if we cross God enough times: look out. God will crush us.

What do we think about that?

Here’s what I’d like us to notice. I’d like us to notice how this story about a man, a landowner contrasts with the story of the Bible and, in particular, with the story of Jesus.

God sends the prophets. And they are greeted with contempt and violence. God sends John the Baptist. And John is greeted with contempt and violence. God sends God’s only son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus. And Jesus is greeted with contempt and violence. Jesus is murdered by the state. But the one whom Jesus calls Father raises Jesus from the dead.

And what happens then?

Well, Jesus tortures and kills everyone who was ever mean to him, right? That’s how the story ends. Isn’t it?

I can’t see you through the screen, but I trust that you are shaking your heads right now.

That isn’t how the story ends.

In the resurrection, what Jesus does is what he did in his earthly life. He tells stories, he teaches, he feeds people.

In the resurrection, the violence of empire is defeated. Empire does its worst, and the power of God turns out to be greater. Greater in the sense that even death cannot hold back Jesus, cannot hold back God. And greater in the sense that God reveals the futility and brokenness of the state’s violence by refusing to participate in it. For Jesus to come back and kill everyone would, in a real way, be a vindication of empire – it would be an announcement that empire’s philosophy, empire’s way of being was right the whole time. You will know who is right, you will know who the winner is because their violence is greatest.

And God says: No. God says what one of his prophets, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would famously said all those years later. You will see these words on lawn signs across Portland:

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

One there was a man, a landowner. And he behaved the way that human beings so often do. He responded to violence with violence. But not God. God responds to violence with resurrection.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

If you are listening to this sermon from California or the middle and southern part of Cascadia – Cascadia being that the massive watershed that extends from British Columbia down through Oregon – you have spent a good part of this week underneath an orange and terrifying sky. Folks have described this sky as apocalyptic, as the unveiling of the end of the world. And I get why. The sight would be distressing enough in any year. But then you drop it into 2020 – into the middle of pandemic; into the middle of wildly polarized election; into an economy filled with chaos and loss that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II; into the struggle against police violence and for black dignity – and that orange sky feels like a perverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of everything that is hurting and broken and wrong.

Underneath that sky, in the middle of all of this turmoil, there is the wee corner of the world that we call Grace Memorial. And in this wee corner, our ministries continue. We continue to worship, to feed the poor, to work towards redeveloping our campus.

And my question for us this morning goes like this: given the enormity of the world’s hurts, do these little things matter?

You don’t have to spend long on Twitter or on TV to encounter folks making that argument about this moment.

Sure, Portland City Council has banned the worst kind of tear gas from our streets, but if a police officer is inclined towards violence they still have rubber bullets and truncheons and other flavours of gas. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, solar panels are nice, but the oil barons are belching smoke into the atmosphere at a pace that we cannot even comprehend and so the forests will keep on burning. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, we could put 80 or 100 units of affordable housing on Grace’s block. But the people living in cars and tents and on the pavement are beyond counting. It doesn’t really matter.

What does Jesus have to say about that?

Today Jesus tells a folk tale about this question. It goes like this.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was heavily in debt. And the person to whom this man was in debt was his boss. He owed his boss ten thousand talents. There are varying estimates as to how much ten thousand talents in today’s dollars, but all of them have a lot of zeroes in them. Folks doing the math reckon that this guy owed his boss somewhere between 3.5 and 9 billion dollars. That’s a lot of talents, an inconceivable amount of money. It would be a defensible paraphrase of Jesus’ story to say that the man owed his boss a gazillion dollars. So, more money than he could pay back in a lifetime, more than he could pay back in ten lifetimes.

The man fell on his face in front of his boss and he made a promise that both of them knew he could not keep: Have patience with me, he said, have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

What did the boss do then? Did he set up a payment plan? Did he ask for something awful, the way that bosses do sometimes in folk tales? I want your soul? Or I want the life of your first born.

No! The boss forgave the debt in its entirety. He tore up the 4.5 billion dollar promissory note, the pieces of paper fell to the ground like snowy possibility.

The newly forgiven man left high-rise tower where his boss lived, a spring in his step that had not been there in years. I’m free! he sang. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work –

But then the man stopped. And looked hard at the guy he knew from work. Wait a minute, he said, Guy from work: you owe me money. You owe me a hundred denarii.

(A hundred denarii, again depending on who you ask, being worth maybe $8700 in today’s dollars.)

The Guy from Work said, Have patience with me. Have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

This is the same scene that we saw a moment before, except that the man is now in the role of the boss.

No way, he said. You’re going to jail!

And he got out the handcuffs and called the paddy wagon, and things were looking good until his boss came out of the high-rise tower and saw him.

The man stared at his boss in horror. And like a child with his hand in the cookie jar right up to his elbow, he said,

It’s not what it looks like.

And because this is a folk tale gives Jesus gives it an ending that the Brothers Grimm with their love of slapstick violence would approve of. The boss said to his employee:

To the dungeon with you. Where you will be tortured!

The end!

What is the moral of the story?

Here’s one possible answer to that question.

Let’s assume that the boss is God. And the employee – that’s you and me. And we owe this debt to God, we owe God a gazillion dollars. This body to walk through the world: God gave it to us. This mind to think: God gave it to us. This heart to love: God gave it to us. The stuff to use, the money to spend: God gave it to us.

We go to God and we say:

I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need ‘til the weekend.

But God says:

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

It is a cosmic, earth-shaking, impossible act of generosity. A debt that we couldn’t pay back in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes: gone.

Now, in addition to all of the other stuff that God has given us, God has given us one more thing. And that is the opportunity to be generous, to give stuff away, free of charge. To imitate God. Now, the stuff that we have to give away isn’t on God’s scale. God has $4.5 billion to forgive. We’ve got something more like $8700.

But here’s the thing that Jesus sure seems to be saying in this folk tale. Even though what we have got is tiny, even though it is a drop in the proverbial bucket, being generous, giving as we have received: this matters. It matters to God. And it matters for our souls. Not because God will torture us if we don’t – that’s a folk tale ending, God is not in the torture business, God never was – but because there is holy freedom in this generosity.

To go around with clenched fists saying, this is mine and you can’t have any: it distorts our souls, it holds us back from the joy of being people with open hands. There is a kind of torture in selfishness. But we are the ones torturing ourselves.

We have the opportunity to be generous. To create just a little housing in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little community in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little beauty in a city that needs it so badly. It’s tiny what we can do, tiny compared with what God has done for us. And it matters. It matters to us, it matters to our neighbours, it matters to God.

This is what Jesus does across his life. He lives under brutal occupation, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a handful of people doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time when hunger is known by so, so many, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a few doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time, just like now, when there is no shortage of religious authorities insisting that God is petty and small, and maybe he is tempted to say that telling a story of freedom doesn’t matter. But he tells the story anyway.

Here’s the thing about this folk tale that Jesus tells us today. Jesus gives it an unhappy ending. And in doing so, Jesus is inviting us to rewrite it, to create our own happy ending.

Imagine.

The man comes out the front door of the high-rise door. I’m free! he sings. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work… who owes me money.

The two of them look at each other for a second.

And then the man says.

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

And The Guy from Work smiles and says thank you. And they he goes on his way. And maybe, he forgives someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else. Maybe this act of generosity begins a virtuous cycle, a holy cycle. But we don’t know about that. Because the camera stays on the first man, the man who owed his boss a gazillion dollars and now owes him nothing. The man who a second ago, was owed $8700, and now is owed nothing.

You’d think it would sting to be out that money. $8700 isn’t $4.5 billion. But nor is it nothing. But the man realizes that in forgiving this debt, there is, somehow, impossibly, even more spring in his step than there was a second ago. He goes on his way whistling a tune. He goes on his way, free.